Colossians 2 – Is the Sabbath Permanent?
Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink or in respect of a holyday or of the new moon or of the sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of ChristColossians 2:16
For many, in the past and still today, Colossians 2:16 has raised a problem, the problem created by the inclusion of sabbath (or sabbaths — the original is capable of being translated as a singular or a plural) in Paul's statement here.
Paul is exhorting the Colossian Christians not to allow themselves to be critically judged on the basis of religious scruples about what they could or could not eat, or the observance or nonobservance of religious festivals. The festivals he has in mind are identified, firstly, by the general word for a religious feast or festival ("holyday"), then by the term that speaks of new moon celebrations, and lastly by the term that can be translated "a sabbath day" or "sabbaths". As we said, it is the inclusion of the final term that has created the problem and has become the focus of debate.
In certain Christian circles this verse along with what Paul writes in Romans 14:5-6a and in Galatians 4:10 is taken to support the idea that there is no place for a weekly sabbath, whether it be the first day or seventh day. The implication of this is that the Fourth Commandment is not binding on Christians: it has passed away with the rest of the ceremonial Jewish law. What is required of the Christian is that every day be regarded as the Lord's Day.
The assumption behind this position is that in Colossians 2:16 and the Roman and Galatian passages Paul has in mind the Fourth Commandment when he talks about "sabbath" or "sabbaths" in Colossians and "days" or "a day" in Romans and Galatians. It needs to be remembered, however, that under the Jewish ceremonial system there were many other special days and days that were called sabbaths, apart from the weekly sabbath. A passage such as Leviticus 23 makes this clear.
The assumption that in Colossians 2:16 (and in his speaking about "days" in Romans and Galatians) Paul is referring to the Fourth Commandment causes perplexity to those who cannot accept the idea that the Fourth Commandment, with its principle of a weekly day of rest, has been abolished. Many of the readers of The Monthly Record will perhaps find themselves in this position. They recognise the unity of the Ten Commandments. They believe that while the commandments were incorporated into the covenant made with the Jewish nation, they are the revelation of the mind of God and the revelation of his will for all mankind from creation. Why then does Paul write as he does here — telling the Colossian Christians not to allow anyone to pass judgment on them in this matter of sabbath keeping? Why does he go on to say that the sabbaths, along with these other festivals and rules regarding eating and drinking, were but shadows which have passed away now that the reality which they foreshadowed has come, Christ Jesus himself.
The question then is: what are the "sabbaths" Paul is talking about here in Colossians 2:16? Is he talking about the Fourth Commandment or does he have in view other sabbath days which, with other festivals mentioned in the verse, were in fact part of the Jewish ceremonial law which was fulfilled in Christ, ceremonies which, with his coming, had served their purpose and so passed away? Can we answer these questions?
To properly understand the meaning of words we must always look at them in their context — the passage in which they are found — and to understand the passage we must consider the background against which it was written.
In this passage Paul is not talking about the place of the Ten Commandments in the life of the Christian. The only possible reference in the passage to these Commandments is at the end of v. 13 and the beginning of v. 14. There in v. 13 he is talking about our transgressions, the transgressions of all, Jew and Gentile, the transgressions of law given to all. In v. 14 he is talking about the handwriting that was against us, a reference to the law seen from the point of view of the curse that it pronounces against those who break it.
This passage, like the whole of the Epistle, is written against the background of the heresy which was growing up in the Church at Colossae. It is notoriously difficult to define in a few words what the heresy was. It is clear that it incorporated Jewish, even Pharisaic elements, elements from some of the sects, like the Essenes, and elements that owed more to pagan philosophies than to the Old Testament or Apostolic teaching. Among other things it insisted on rigid asceticism in certain directions; on worshipping of angels as supposed mediators between God and men; and on the observance of Jewish festivals and holy days, observances which were perhaps modified from their Old Testament originals. The heresy was a mixture; it was syncretistic.
There was much that was Tong with the teaching that was spreading in Colossae, for example, the place it gave to angels, but what made it a heresy and what called forth Paul's strong condemnation, was that it was insisting on all these do's and don'ts as necessary for full salvation. It was detracting from the all-sufficiency and the alone sufficiency of Christ for salvation in all its fullness. The Christians at Colossae were not being encouraged by the false teachers to see all their transgressions forgiven in Christ crucified nor to see themselves delivered in Christ, the victor, from all the power of evil. They were being presented with human philosophy, hollow sham (v. 8), the need to observe taboos (vv. 16, 21), feasts and holy days (v. 16).
Some of these festivals and holy days in their original form had been given by God to the Jewish people. They pointed to Christ and in their own time and place were entirely useful; but, insisted on now that Christ had come and finished his work, they were no better than the religious rites of paganism.
It is against this background that we are to understand Paul's exhortation in v. 16. Paul speaks so strongly to the Colossians about not allowing themselves to be forced by critical judgments to adopt the heretics' teaching, because to adopt it was not to enter into a fuller salvation but to step back to the shadows and miss the reality, Christ (v. 17), and to be cheated out of all that they have in Christ (vv. 8-10, 18). That Paul can speak of the festivals, including the sabbaths, as shadows is in itself a clear indication that the sabbath he has in view is not that of the Fourth Commandment. The commandments are never anywhere in Scripture spoken of as foreshadowing Christ.
Help in understanding what Paul is saying in Colossians 2:16 is found in looking at the way Paul writes in Romans 14 even although the background situation in the Roman Church was very different from that in Colossae. In Colossae, as indeed in Galatia, it was a matter of false teachers insisting that for full salvation it was necessary among other things to observe religious festivals and holy days after the pattern of the Mosaic ceremonial law (compare Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 4:16).
In Rome it was a different situation. It was a matter of groups of Christians who shared the same total trust in Christ and in Christ alone for salvation and were equally devoted to Christ, having different attitudes and practices as to how their devotion to Christ should be expressed.
For some, their devotion to Christ expressed itself in the vegetarian diet which was all that they allowed themselves (cf. Romans 14:2). Others, strong in faith and no less devoted to Christ, felt free from any restriction on their diet. Similar differences were seen with regard to the observance or non-observance of holy days. Some, very likely converted Jews, were continuing to observe Jewish holy days and festivals seeing in them an opportunity to express their devotion to Christ. Others, perhaps mostly, but not exclusively, Gentile converts, felt themselves under no obligation to join with these brethren and did not see their devotion to Christ in any way compromised by their non-observance. Here there was no heresy on either side. It was not, as in Colossae and Galatia, a matter of those things being insisted on as necessary for full salvation. It was a matter of different spiritual insights and differences in what was regarded as proper expression of devotion.
It is instructive to see how Paul handles the situation in Rome. There is no strong rebuke and warning as there is in the Colossian and Galatian Epistles. In the latter Churches heresy was being taught in what was being imposed on believers. There was need for the strong injunction, "Do not submit". In writing to the Romans Paul contents himself with a warm admonition to each group: Don't be critical or sit in judgment on each other; live in mutual respect for each other's position; let each be fully persuaded in his own mind. In his admonition Paul makes it clear that the man who has decided not to observe the holy day has made a perfectly valid decision (see Romans 14:4-6).
Now Paul could not have written like this had the day he had in mind been the sabbath of the Ten Commandments. The keeping of any of the Ten Commandments is not a matter of private judgment. It is not for a man to make up his own mind whether he will obey or not obey. This is true of the fourth as it is of the other nine. The holy day that Paul has in mind in Romans is obviously one that could be freely observed or freely not observed without fault or obligation on either side.
The situations in Rome and Colossae (and Galatia) were very different. In Rome there were those who, not fully understanding all the implications of the gospel for the Jewish ceremonial law, wished to go on observing Jewish festivals, not as a way of earning salvation, but as a means of expressing devotion to Christ. Paul does not forbid them, no doubt expecting that they would in time come to the same mind as their brethren who did not join them — the brethren who are identified as the strong in faith.
In the Roman passage, as in the Colossian one, Paul is not dealing with the place of the Ten Commandments in the life of the Christian. He is not at this point talking about what the Ten Commandments require of Christians. He is certainly not excusing any man from the obligations of any one of these commandments. He is talking about the place of the ceremonial law in the life of the Christian. Where Jewish converts in their present state of understanding or lack of understanding found a place for certain aspects of the ceremonial law in their devotional life Paul will not forbid them these observances.
But where, as in Colossae and Galatia, it was a matter of these, with other rules, being insisted on for Jew and Gentile for full salvation Paul will have none of it. Here it is not a matter of expression of devotion to Christ. It is a matter of the only and all sufficient Christ being dishonoured and detracted from and great spiritual changes ensuing. In the Romans passage Paul's reference to the observance of special days cannot be taken as his making a matter of private judgment the Fourth Commandment enshrined in the Ten Commandments with their perpetual obligation. So in the Colossian passage Paul cannot be taken as forbidding the observance, or treating as a matter of indifference the keeping of one of the Ten Commandments.
Colossians 2:16 with its reference to sabbath or sabbaths does not conflict with our understanding of the perpetual obligation of the principle of the Fourth Commandment. To use this verse as an argument in favour of the dissolution of that principle is to fail to do justice to the various senses in which the word sabbath is used in Scripture; it is to fail to treat the verse in its context and it is to fail to compare Scripture with Scripture.